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Flu in Hong Kong

Give 1.5 million middle-aged Hong Kong residents free flu jabs to enhance city’s protection, NGO says

Society for Community Organisation says investing HK$300 million to expand vaccination scheme would save lives and ease burden on public hospitals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 5:52pm

Hong Kong’s free flu vaccine scheme should be expanded to cover all residents aged 50 and above – at a cost of about HK$300 million (US$38.5 million) – to enhance the city’s protection against seasonal influenza, an NGO said on Sunday.

Subsidised jabs are currently available to those aged 65 or above to protect them from flu viruses that hit the city twice a year, killing hundreds, mostly the elderly or people with underlying illnesses. Lowering the eligibility age to 50 would mean an extra 1.5 million people would be covered.

The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) said investing more to expand the free vaccination scheme would save lives and ease the burden on public hospitals, which were stretched to breaking point every year during peak flu seasons in winter and summer.

A survey by the group found only 45.5 per cent of the 324 people from low-income families it polled were eligible for free protection – leaving most grass-roots residents vulnerable because they could not afford to pay for jabs.

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, community organiser for SoCO, called on the government to provide subsidised jabs to people aged 50 and above. He added that subsidised families should get free vaccinations at government clinics or health centres.

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“It would cost less than HK$300 million,” Pang said. “The government should be able to afford the cost, and with such an input, this large amount of people vulnerable to flu could benefit.”

He said there were more serious flu cases in the 50-64 age group than among children.

But they could not get free jabs unless they received Comprehensive Social Security Assistance or had a medical fee waiver under the Government Vaccination Programme.

Without a government subsidy, a flu jab at a private clinic costs about HK$290 – HK$190 for the vaccine and HK$100 for the doctor’s consultation fee.

Several elderly residents stressed the importance of promoting the vaccination scheme.

Lam Pak-hung, 69, who has not been vaccinated against flu, said people of his age did not have any proper channels to find out about the importance of the jabs or where to get them.

“I don’t go to hospital frequently or go to a home for the elderly. The only way I get information about the flu vaccination is from television, but it’s very vague,” he said.

Pang hoped organisations for the elderly, families and youth could better promote vaccination.

As for children, Pang said the government was not doing enough to reach pupils at school.

There are 588 primary schools in Hong Kong with more than 360,000 pupils but the vaccination programme only provided 138,000 jabs in around 200 schools with 100,000 students benefiting.

“We hope that at least 30 per cent of primary school students can benefit, covering more than half of the schools in total, since currently already 20 per cent of students get vaccinated.”

He hoped the next step for the government would be to provide free vaccines for 1,000 kindergartens in Hong Kong.

Acting health minister Dr Chui Tak-yi said the government was preparing a pilot scheme to provide flu vaccines to pupils at about 200 schools before the winter peak later this year. But the government could not make such an arrangement for more schools due to the high numbers, he said.

“This is a pilot scheme … We cannot provide such service on campus to more schools as there will be too many,” Chui said, while promising to review the scheme after it was completed and plan for next year.

For schools not in the scheme, children would have to visit clinics to get vaccinated.

Early this year, the city experienced a shortage of vaccines amid the winter flu peak, with public hospitals overloaded with patients.